A day laborer hired to clean up a flooded creek outside of Boulder, Colorado uncovers what could be a valuable find—if it doesn’t kill him first.
It was just a day-labor gig. Really, the only reason I’d signed on was because, for insurance reasons, hiring on meant getting fitted for a brand-new pair of lace-up Red Wing boots. It was new policy that summer. Some punk from a few months before had come back and sued the owners for how his right foot had gotten caught up under the tread of a little ditch witch. He’d argued he was going to have a game foot the rest of his life, and that would impact future employment, happiness, his dreams of being a kicker for the Broncos—everything, to the tune of a few hundred thousand dollars.
Before anyone else could ease what they considered their least important foot in the way of any of the equipment, it was new boots all around—composite toes, ankle support—and all you had to do to lace those boots on was sign papers that, since your feet were now protected, you and you alone would be legally liable for them.
After this story, I’d asked if there was a similar reason for the helmets we all had to wear, and the back braces, and the gloves, but instead of an answer I got a cuff on the shoulder and a push away into the day’s work, which was cleaning out a creek bed.
We were north of Boulder that day, on the slant up to Longmont. And I have no clue why this creek bed was getting our attention. It felt like busy work, really. As near as I could tell, every waterway for miles in every direction was clogged with trash from the flood three years before. Maybe the water had been backing up in a way that was threatening to swamp Diagonal Highway, I don’t know. It was a job. There were eleven of us clocking in every morning round about lunch, clocking out just before dark.
Three days into it, we’d found a car door, a Styrofoam head we guessed had once held a wig, and a whole waterlogged library. Seriously, like somebody upstream had seen the flood coming and plopped down on their back porch with a pile of books, Frisbeed them out into the water one by one.
We were piling the junk on heavy-duty trash tarps a truck with a crane could lift out later. It wasn’t easy work, but it was good work. Good enough.
Forty yards upstream from us was the real crew, using heavy equipment to haul up the heavy sludge, roll up the dead brush, pull down whatever trees had been undercut by the water, were about to fall over, turn the whole area into a swamp.
I was working alongside Burned Dan when I felt his stillness, followed where he was looking: upstream, the big dozer was chained to a monster willow, pulling it down, away from the creek, which wasn’t the way it wanted to go. But, by slow degrees, and with a lot of shaking and jerking, it went.
We were all watching by the time it finally whooshed down.
Burned Dan shook his head in wonder, rubbed his bandanna across his face—not a pocket-bandanna or old man’s handkerchief, but the bandanna he wore like a train robber, since his leathery skin didn’t take to the sun so much anymore. Between his long sleeves and wide hat, gloves and bandannas, he was pretty safe from getting burned again, I figured.
“Bet that root pan stinks,” the Reverend said to us all.
I don’t think he was really a reverend, but it’s not like I was the high school football star I’d taken to claiming either. We all gave each other a lot of latitude. That’s how it goes with day laboring. You’re always your best self, just down on your luck a bit, only here for a week, maybe two, until your real thing comes through.
“Thirty more minutes and quit,” Jake boomed out when he saw us admiring the pulled-over willow. He was our crew’s ramrod. You could tell from how straight his back was, from the stick up his ass.
We bent to it, dredging and scraping, splashing and coughing, making a path from the creek to the afternoon’s blue tarp.